Audrey Bird and her husband Peter homestead in central Alaska, 150 miles from the nearest road.
To get to their house, she explains when I interview her by phone (after the Skype connection cuts out), you fly from Fairbanks and then take an hour-long boat ride across Lake Minchumina.
When Audrey, who is 26, got pregnant for the third time, she knew she would give birth at home. A trained midwife herself, she had her first baby in the hospital and her second at home. For baby number three she felt completely confident about giving birth at home, even though she had had a pretty heavy postpartum hemorrhage after her second birth. Her husband Peter, who was trained in emergency childbirth through the sheriff’s department, handled the bleeding like a pro, Audrey tells me.
But Audrey didn’t just want a home birth.
She wanted to birth her daughter outside. Into the waters of Lake Minchumina.
“We spend most of our time outside in the summer time, because it’s just beautiful,” she explains. “Why not have her in the environment that she’s going to grow up and be in and play in every day?”
But two days before Audrey gave birth, however, Mother Nature put a dent in her plans.
A torrential summer downpour filled the lake with water and debris.
The lake water was higher than residents who had lived their all their lives had ever seen it.
And the lake was so filled with debris — fallen logs, dead animals — that having an outdoor birth no longer seemed safe.
The Birds were not deterred. Even if they couldn’t have a lake birth, they could still have an outdoor birth.
So Peter built Audrey a birch-tree platform six feet off the ground, which he draped with mosquito netting to keep out the bugs.
Would having an unassisted outdoor birth on an island in central Alaska be safe for Audrey and the baby? While we know that midwife-assisted birth with licensed midwives is as safe or safer than hospital birth, no data that I am aware of exists about the safety of planned unassisted birth.
But Audrey and Peter Bird were confident they were making a safe choice.
“I think you just have to look at yourself and your family and what’s best for you and your baby. That’s going to be the safest,” Audrey says frankly. “For us that was right outside our home. I was the calmest, most peaceful, and happiest. I didn’t have any fear of complications. Also, we had a good back up plan in case there was an emergency to transfer.” (They had alerted the local medevac, which had a helicopter that could fly her to the hospital in Fairbanks.)
I interviewed Audrey for an article on outdoor birth I wrote for ResetMe.
I also talked to a first-time mom who had a horse-assisted outdoor birth.
And a mom who gave birth to her baby on her side patio in Poughkeepsie, New York.
As well as a Texas mom who birthed her fifth baby into a tub set up in an oak tree grove on her property in Texas.
Click over to my article, “Outdoor Birth: Why Some Women Choose Nature—Not Just Natural—Birth,” to read about their experiences.
Back to Audrey Bird: She tells me contractions started while she and her husband were out canoeing on the lake. Her mom and 17-year-old sister were watching the two older children. “We decided to go back home, they were coming pretty hard and fast,” Audrey remembers.
In July in Alaska there are 24 hours of sunlight and it was a warm evening, the perfect night for having a baby. The sun hit Mount McKinley, turning the landscape a glowing pink. Audrey, who says she is a “vocal birther,” remembers the sound of the chickadees, spruce grouse, and robins, as well as the wind rustling through the leaves as she labored outside.
As idyllic as that sounds, the birth itself, Audrey admits, was difficult.
Though Audrey did not hemorrhage this time, her daughter was sunny side up and her head was cocked at an angle, making it hard for her to get under Audrey’s pubic bone and out of the birth canal. Audrey made a lot of noise, moving around during the entire labor (“I just moved and moved and moved,” she explains) and getting on her hands and knees to push. She says she had to work extra hard to birth this baby — who they named Piper — and she is certain if she had been in a hospital the birth would have ended in either a C-section or a vacuum-extraction. She doesn’t see this as evidence that she made an unsafe choice in having a home birth, but rather another reason why she is glad she was giving birth at home.
“As a midwife, when I attend a birth, I sit back,” Audrey explains. “I allow the mom’s body to do what it needs to do. I’m there as a lifeguard, in case something happens. Usually it doesn’t. For me, when I have an unassisted birth, my husband knows what to do. We are paying attention the entire time to the baby’s heart rate and to our instinctual feelings. We are prepared. Birth generally happens the way it needs to when it is undisturbed.”
At the end of the interview Audrey tells me she is pregnant again.
The new baby is due in June.
The lake water will probably be too cold, she says. Still, she’s planning to have another outdoor birth.
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning investigative journalist, Fulbright grantee, and author of Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family. Her writing has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on the cover of Smithsonian Magazine. A frequent contributor to the Jefferson Monthly, an NPR affiliate magazine, she is the author/editor of six nonfiction books. Her seventh book, co-authored with Dr. Paul Thomas, M.D., will be published by Ballantine. Find her on Facebook; follow her on Pinterest and Twitter.